Rookies, Managers, and Relievers

If the Baseball Bloggers Alliance is voting on awards this season, I’m late on three out of five.  I’ve covered the best players and the best pitchers, but haven’t touched on rookies, managers, or relievers yet.

I’ll make these brief.

AL Willie Mays Award (Top Rookie)

  1. Carlos Correa, Astros
  2. Francisco Lindor, Indians
  3. Miguel Sano, Twins

Correa and Lindor are both total-package shortstops who came up well after the season started and played exactly 99 games.  Correa had the bat (.279/.345/.512 to Lindor’s .313/.353/.482), but Lindor had the glove (11.5 fielding runs above average, per fangraphs to Correa’s 1.6 below average).  Both were fast (14 steals in 18 tries for Correa; Lindor went 12 for 14), but Correa gets the edge in Baserunning Runs according to both keepers of WAR.

In a virtual toss-up, both keepers of WAR prefer Lindor for his far-better defense, but over such a small sample, I have a hard time putting too much stock in that.  Correa’s 22 home runs and 40 walks (to Lindor’s 12 and 27, respectively) give him the edge.  I also like picking the guy who seems to have the brighter future when the rookie year numbers are so similar.  Correa, by all accounts, is a superstar of the near future.

Sano gets the edge over Billy Burns for his big-time bat (151 wRC+).

NL Willie Mays Award

  1. Kris Bryant, Cubs
  2. Jung-ho Kang, Pirates
  3. Matt Duffy, Giants

Nothing much to see here. Bryant was a beast, hitting .275/.369/.488 with 26 homers and excellent third-base defense.  Kang hit 15 homers as the Pirates’ regular shortstop until a take-out slide ended his season early.  Duffy had good defensive numbers and batted .295, but with limited power and no patience.

The Cubs had two more contenders in Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.  Noah Syndergaard was clearly the best rookie pitcher in either league and could easily have landed the second or third spot above.


AL Connie Mack Award (Top Manager)

  1. Paul Molitor, Twins
  2. Jeff Banister, Rangers
  3. AJ Hinch, Astros

I won’t tell you how many of these managers I had to look up.  As I’ve made clear in past years, I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m qualified to judge a manager’s effectiveness, but I’m happy to compare my preseason picks to actual results and jump to the conclusions that the managers whose teams most exceeded my expectations deserve all the credit.

In the AL, I basically got everything wrong, picking the Orioles, Red Sox, Indians, Angels, and Mariners to make the playoffs. Ned Yost and John Gibbons would make fine picks here, as I had both of their teams finishing right around .500 and both topped 90 wins.  Banister and Hinch must have done tremendous jobs, as I had those two teams in the last two spots in the AL West, as I thought the Astros needed one more year before contending and the Rangers seemed like a mess even before losing Yu Darvish.

The winner, though, has to be the guy who helmed the least talented team in baseball to an astonishing 83 wins in his first season at the helm.  I remember talking to a friend before the season about how wide open the American League appeared to be.  “Everyone’s going to win 87 games except the Twins,” we agreed.  Oops.

NL Connie Mack Award

  1. Joe Maddon, Cubs
  2. Terry Collins, Mets
  3. Mike Matheny, Cardinals

This league was far more predictable, with just these top two teams far exceeding my expectations.  I picked the NL Central in the right order, but I would have tabbed the Cubs for about 18 fewer wins than their 97 (and the Cards for several fewer than their 100, hence Matheny’s appearance).  It’s fashionable to give credit to Maddon, so that’s just what I’ll do.

I’m embarrassed to admit I had the Mets finishing behind the Marlins, but they didn’t seem to have much offense, and pitching depth wasn’t a particular strength before Thor showed up.  Collins was embarrassingly out-managed by Yost in the World Series, but this is  regular season award, and he got a lot out of the Mets.


AL Goose Gossage Award (Top Reliever)

  1. Wade Davis, Royals
  2. Dellin Betances, Yankees
  3. Andrew Miller, Yankees

I never would have guessed that Cody Allen led all relievers in fWAR this year at 2.6.  I’m not sure I care ether.  Allen’s 1.82 FIP is mighty impressive, but Davis gave up just eight runs in the same 69 innings, to Allen’s 26.  Betances was a very close second, having struck out 53 more batters than Davis (131 to 78), but he also walked twice as many (40 to 20) and gave up more than twice as many runs (17).  We shouldn’t attribute run prevention entirely to the pitcher, but Davis kept runners off the bases (.768 WHIP) and kept his ERA under 1 for a second straight year, something no other pitcher has ever done.

Miller gets the last spot by virtue of 100 strikeouts and a 1.90 ERA, though Zack Britton and Darren O’Day were equally great in Baltimore.

NL Goose Gossage Award

  1. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
  2. Ken Giles, Phillies
  3. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals

Chapman was the only pitcher in either league- starter or reliever- with an ERA and a FIP under 2.  Sometimes the formula works.  Giles had a 1.80 ERA and 87 strikeouts to just 25 walks.  Rosenthal had a 2.10 ERA and 83 strikeouts vs. 25 walks for a team that almost inexplicably won 100 games.  Apologies to Jeurys Familia and Hector Rondon, who just missed.


Posted in Twins, Royals, Cubs, Reds, Postseason Awards, Astros | 2 Comments

NL Walter Johnson Award

This is the hard one.

In 2015, a National League pitcher had a 1.66 ERA, the best in either league since Greg Maddux’s 1.63 in an abbreviated 1995 season. The last ERA that low with as many innings pitched as his 222 2/3 was Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 in 1985.

In 2015, a National League pitcher struck out 301 batters, the most in either league since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002. The last time someone struck out that many batters in as few innings as his 232 2/3 was Pedro Martinez in 1999.

In 2015, a third pitcher had a 1.77 ERA, the fourth best ERA since he was born in 1986. His second-half ERA of 0.75 was the best since Freddie Schupp’s 0.71 in 1916.

One of these guys has to be third on my ballot.

Here’s a fun exercise: Let’s pretend these three guys didn’t exist. A five-man ballot might look like this:

1. Max Scherzer (2.79 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 276 K, 3 CG w/1 hit or fewer)
2. Gerrit Cole (2.60 ERA, 2.66 FIP, ace of 97-win team)
3. Madison Bumgarner (2.93 ERA, 287 FIP, 5 HR as a batter)
4. Jacob deGrom (2.54 ERA, 2.70 FIP, co-ace of pennant winner)
5. Matt Harvey (2.71 ERA, 3.05 FIP, co-ace of pennant winner)

Even this list neglects great seasons from Jon Lester, Shelby Miller, Tyson Ross, and four Cardinals starters with ERAs of 3.03 or better. In a typical season, this would seem like a deep field, and that’s without the three transcendent pitchers I’m filibustering before debating. This probably says something about the quality of the National League in 2015, particularly of the eight sub-.500 teams, who were probably the eight worst teams in all of baseball. Regardless, the NL is full of aces right now and three of them stood out from this impressive pack.

Back to the good guys. Unless you stumbled upon this little corner of the internet while trying to replace the level in your toolbox, you probably know that the three men whose exploits are boasted above are Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta, respectively. Every one of them deserves the Cy Young Award and the Walter Johnson Award and the Pedro Martinez Award (there must be one of these, right?) and the award that will someday be named after him because of how well he pitched in 2015.

In my post about the American League Walter Johnson Award, I noted the similarities between Dallas Keuchel and David Price, then parsed their numbers a little further and revealed that Keuchel, at least in my estimation, was the better pitcher. I’ll try to dig similarly deep with these three, but I fear that such analysis won’t reavel answers as much as it will expose biases. These guys dominated differently, and depending on how we measure pitching greatness, reasonable people will come to different conclusions as to who was the best.

Alas, here are two methods to try to separate these three pitchers: First, like I did in the AL, I’ll try to assign credit for certain outcomes among pitchers and fielders using fangraphs’ value metrics. Giving full credit for strikeouts, walks, and home runs, which comprise FIP wins, half credit for balls in play, which comprise BIP wins, and quarter credit for stranding runners, or LOB wins, the leaderboard looks like this:

Kershaw 8.675
Arrieta 8.525
Greinke 7.9
Scherzer 6.8
deGrom 5.525

All three top candidates look better by this method than they do if you simply look at fWAR and assume everything other than strikeouts, walks, and home runs should be attributed to defense and luck. They all had tremendous success on balls in play, from Kershaw’s .281 opponent BABIP (which translates to 1 additional win) to Arrieta’s .246 (2.9 wins) to Greinke’s hard-to-fathom .229 (4 wins, the most since Catfish Hunter’s 4.7 in 1975). All three are renowned for their defense, so at least a bit of that credit has to go to them. LOB wins were neutral to Greinke, though he stranded an impressive 86.5% of baserunners, while both Arrieta (80%) and Kershaw (78.3%) score negative runs by fangraphs’ LOB-wins metric, whether the result of sequencing luck or just randomness.

For what it’s worth, Baseball Reference saw the defense behind the two Dodgers pitchers as basically neutral (.02 runs), while Arrieta’s fielders were a little better (.09). Greinke led the trio, and all of baseball, in Defensive Runs Saved with nine, to Arrieta’s six and Kershaw’s five. These guys are good.

It’s hard to look at a 1.66-ERA season and claim the pitcher was lucky, but Greinke’s season appears to be a freak convergence of dominant pitching, excellent fielding from the pitcher and his defense, a lot of balls in play finding gloves rather than grass, and a very small percentage of baserunners finding their way home. Kershaw, in contrast, blew hitters away, but on the rare occasions when someone put the ball in play against him, he surrendered the occasional run, whether due to a loss of focus or to the random bunching of hits and outs.

A pitcher’s job is to put his team in position to win, but it’s well documented that wins and losses are the result of far more than a pitcher’s performance. Offense is half the game, and even on the defensive side, fielders deserve a significant portion of the credit for run prevention. One method of measuring dominance is Game Score, a Bill James-designed metric incorporating how long a pitcher lasts in a game, how many hits, walks, and runs he allows, and how many outs come by strikeout. While the hit and run components are fielding-dependent, much of what Game Score measures is the pitcher’s contribution to team success- getting outs (better if by strikeout), saving the bullpen, keeping runners off the bases.

What does Game Score think of our three protagonists? Here are their 2015 averages:

Kershaw 67.97
Arrieta 67.24
Greinke 67.06

That didn’t solve much. Let’s dig deeper.

According to this SABR piece by Jeff Angus from 2007, a team wins 79% of its games when its starter’s Game Score is within two points of 70. A team loses 81% of its games when the starter’s Game Score is within two points of 29. If we consider a Game Score of 70 or more an almost-guaranteed Win, 29 or worse an almost-guaranteed loss, and anything in between a toss-up, here’s how these three pitchers look:

(Guaranteed Wins-Tossups-Guaranteed Losses)
Kershaw 13-21-0
Greinke 12-21-0
Arrieta 17-17-0

Now we might have something. Arrieta practically guaranteed a win for the Cubs in half of his starts, and put them in a reasonable position to win the other half. Neither Kershaw nor Greinke laid an egg all year (each had a nadir of 33), but they both trailed Arrieta by a handful of dominant starts.

Let’s lower the bar just a bit, to 65 for a Win and 35 for a Loss:

Kershaw 18-14-2
Greinke 22-10-1
Arrieta 20-14-0

There’s Mr. Consistent again. Greinke topped 65 in two thirds of his starts and only once failed to break 35. In his worst start, he gave up five runs on ten hits in six innings. In Colorado. Arrieta looks great again, striking out seven is his worst start, a 5 1/3-inning loss at St. Louis in which he gave up five runs (four earned) on nine hits. Kershaw’s two rough starts early in the season are exposed, and he falls just short of the others in dominant outings.

Each of these methods, of course, has its faults. Game Score may assign too much credit for run prevention to the pitcher, just as fWAR almost certainly unfairly absolves the pitcher for BABIP and strand rate. Any hybrid approach to balancing DIPS theory and straight run prevention depends heavily on how much each side is weighted. We know Kershaw was the best in the league at striking guys out and not walking them (he always is). We know Greinke was the best at keeping runs off the board (though Arrieta was really close while pitching his home games in a more hitter-friendly environment). How much we weight those two measures of success is a matter of personal preference.

A vote for Arrieta seems to me to be a cop-out. “I can’t put all my eggs in the run prevention basket because of all the randomness and I can’t care entirely about strikeouts and walks because the other stuff matters too, so I’ll go with the guy in the middle”. But that’s not fair to Arrieta, who had a ridiculously good season by any measure. If Arrieta wins the Walter Johnson or the Cy Young or both, he’ll absolutely deserve it. It will only feel like a travesty because of the two Dodger aces who won’t win.

Maybe all this comes down to is avoiding that travesty. If Jake Arrieta doesn’t win, it will be because another guy had a better ERA or because another guy had a better FIP. If Zack Greinke doesn’t win the award, we’ll look back and wonder how that happened to the guy with the best ERA since Maddux. If Clayton Kershaw doesn’t win, we’ll look back and wonder how that happened to the guy who struck out 300 when we never thought anyone else would do that again.

It’s taken me a day and a half to write this post, and at various points, each guy has had be convinced that he was the best of the three. This is it. No more stalling. No more equivocating. Here’s my ballot.

(reads the whole piece again)

(consults fangraphs one more time)

(calls his mother. cries a little)

1. Jake Arrieta
2. Clayton Kershaw
3. Zack Greinke
4. Max Scherzer
5. Gerrit Cole

What a travesty.

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2015 AL Walter Johnson Award

Much like the award for position players, the 2015 AL Walter Johnson Award is a two-horse race. While David Price pitched well for the Tigers before leading the Blue Jays to a division title after his July trade, Dallas Keuchel established his dominance early and pitched well all year as the Astros ended their own playoff drought.

220.1 IP, 225 K, 47 BB, 2.45 ERA, 2.78 FIP
232 IP, 216 K, 51 BB, 2.48 ERA, 2.91 FIP

There’s not much to distinguish between these two lines. Price is on top, with a few more strikeouts, four fewer walks, and slight edges in both ERA and FIP. Keuchel wins the volume award, throwing almost 12 more innings without sacrificing much quality.

Another edge for Keuchel is that he only gave up four unearned runs, to Price’s ten. This is reflected in his superior RA9, giving him a bigger edge in baseball reference’s version of WAR (7.2 to 6.0) than Price holds per fangraphs (6.4 to 6.1).

One way to reconcile FIP-based WAR to RA9-based WAR is to look at the three components of RA9 WAR that fangraphs tracks and try to allocate credit for each between a pitcher and his fielders. By giving the pitcher full credit for the strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed that comprise his FIP wins, half credit for BIP (balls in play) wins, and quarter credit for LOB (left on base) wins, we arrive at the following leaderboard:

Keuchel 6.95
Price 6.625
Sale 5.4
Kluber 5.2
Archer 5.05
Gray 4.8

Keuchel’s opponent BABIP of .269 was fifth-best in the American League. While much of this is attributable to his teammates and to the randomness of balls in play, Keuchel is an excellent fielder himself, so he deserves some credit for this. Keuchel also stranded 79.4% of baserunners, the league’s third-best figure. While Price’s 78.6% strand rate is close behind, his .290 BABIP is closer to the middle of the pack.

Price was better at the things I care about most- striking out batters and limiting walks- but Keuchel was among the best pitchers in the league at basically everything, including volume. That’s a Walter Johnson Award winner.

There’s at least one more conversation worth having as it pertains to this ballot. There seem to be four types of players worth considering:

1. the real contenders- Keuchel and Price
2. the high-K guys whose ERAs don’t match their FIPs- Sale, Kluber, and Archer
3. the low-ERA guys whose FIPs are uninspiring- Gray and maybe Estrada
4. historically dominant relievers

No full-time reliever pitched more than 90 innings, while every starter mentioned above pitched more than 200, so accumulated value metrics won’t support the candidacy of a reliever. Win Probability Added, though, tells another story:

Betances 4.24
A. Miller 4.22
W. Davis 4.22
Keuchel 3.85

Now, WPA may be as biased toward guys who work almost exclusively in high-leverage situations as WAR is toward innings-eating starters, but this is another way of looking at value and it loves three relievers. Betances threw 84 innings with a 1.50 ERA and more than 14 strikeouts per nine innings. Miller had a 1.90 ERA with an even higher strikeout rate (14.59/9 IP). Davis had a sub-1 ERA (0.94) for the second straight year, allowing 8 total runs in 67 1/3 innings. Yankees and Royals games seemed shorter than ever, particularly when a lead was handed over to these guys.

In a year with several great starters, I would be reluctant to include a reliever on a five-man ballot. This year, I’m including two.

1. Keuchel
2. Price
3. Sale
4. Betances
5. Davis

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2015 NL Stan Musial Award

I was tempted to publish a two word post here: Bryce Harper.

The NL Musial this year, is with the NL MVP, should be unanimous. Harper blew everyone away. I suppose some voter somewhere might list Harper somewhere other than first based on one of these ideas:

His teammates underperformed. Playing on one of the best NL rosters in recent memory, Harper couldn’t single-handedly will Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann to play like they did in 2014. He couldn’t heal Denard Span’s wounds or bring Stephen Strasburg back at 100% from the beginning of the year. Then again, the next three position players in fWAR in the NL played for teams with worse records than Washington’s. Harper did trail Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in Win Probability Added, but his 6.25 WPA was actually better than Josh Donaldson’s, and he’s about to win the MVP award because of his clutchiness. Zack Greinke also led Harper in WPA. I guess that brings us to…

You’d prefer a pitcher. I don’t really understand the fascination with giving a pitcher both of the major awards and giving nothing to any of the other eight guys on the field, but I suppose in a year in which a pitcher stands out more than any position player, a pitcher might have been the most valuable. The problem is that there was so much dominant pitching in the NL this year that no one could possibly have stood out the way Harper did. I don’t like to include any pitchers on this ballot (Musial never did much pitching, after all), but you’ll see below that I’ve made an exception for the guys who had historic seasons this year. None of them did what Harper did though. The only other reason I can think of is that…

People hate Bryce Harper. I won’t tell anyone how to feel, but let’s remember that Roger Clemens won an MVP. Barry Bonds won seven. It’s not the Roberto Clemente Humanitarian Award. Speaking of Bonds, he was probably the last guy to put up better numbers than this:


That’s Harper’s slash line, not over a series against the Braves or two weeks in May, but for a 153-game season. One in which he hit 42 homers and 38 doubles, was intentionally walked 15 times, and provided positive value on the bases. His defense wasn’t great, and Jonathan Papelbon doesn’t think he ran hard enough. That’s about all Harper did wrong.

Here’s a full ballot:

1. Bryce Harper
2. Zack Greinke
3. Jake Arrieta
4. Clayton Kershaw
5. Paul Goldschmidt
6. Joey Votto
7. Anthony Rizzo
8. Buster Posey
9. A.J. Pollock
10. Kris Bryant

Both Greinke and Arrieta get some credit for their batting in this ballot. You’ll see what I thought of their pitching when I figure out how I’m going to vote I post my Walter Johnson Award ballots later this week.

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2015 AL Stan Musial Award

It’s awards season, and I’m skipping to the one I usually write about last. I’ll see if I can make time to write about managers and rookies and left-handed right fielders at some point, but for now, let’s talk about one of the more interesting races.

Mike Trout has never lost the Baseball Bloggers Alliance’s Stan Musial Award. I suppose that’s not entirely true. In 2011, the summer he turned 20, he played 40 games for the Angels. Those 40 games were basically the only ones Trout’s played in the big leagues in which he wasn’t the league’s best player.

In 2015, Trout had legitimate competition. First off, if MLB gave one award covering both leagues, it would have to be Bryce Harper’s award this year. There had never been a National League position player whose numbers matched up with Trout’s until Harper broke out with a historic 2015. Even in the American League, though, which Trout led in both versions of WAR for the fourth straight year, there’s a valid reason to drop Trout all the way to second on your ballot: Josh Donaldson.

.299/.402/.590, 41 HR, 11 SB
.297/.371/.568, 41 HR, 6 SB

The line on top- the better one- is Trout’s. He walked about 30% more often than Donaldson, who was otherwise the same offensive player.

60.4/ 2.1/3.3

These are Trout’s and Donaldson’s offensive, defensive, and baserunning runs above average, per fangraphs. Trout plays in a tougher park for hitters, so his offensive advantage is more stark than it may have appeared above. But despite his reputation as a defensive wizard, Trout hasn’t graded far above average since his rookie year in 2012. His 12.4 career DRAA are actually lower than the 13 he earned in 2012 alone. Donaldson, meanwhile has been a stud at the hot corner for the last three seasons, scoring double-digit DRAA each year. Donaldson also gets a slight baserunning edge, due in large part to never having been caught stealing in 2015, something Trout did six times.

We’re pretty close to a draw.

Another checkmark in Donaldson’s favor is WPA, or Win Probability Added. The narrative working in Donaldson’s favor all along was that he put the Blue Jays on his shoulders in August and they never looked back, running away with the division after falling to 50-51 and fourth place in late July. Fangraphs backs this up, as Donaldson led the AL with 5.75 WPA. Second place? You guessed it- Mike Trout, at 5.32.

Donaldson was a major part of Toronto’s playoff push, and was clearly the team’s most valuable player. Let’s not discount trade deadline acquisition David Price’s role in that surge, though, or the play of fellow sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Trout’s Angels may not have made the playoffs, but Trout kept Trouting right down to the wire, putting up bigger offensive numbers than Donaldson or any other AL player during a more closely-contested divisional race than the one Donaldson’s Blue Jays pulled away from late.

By WAR, Trout was the slightly more valuable player this year, whether you prefer fangraphs (9.0-8.7) or Baseball Reference (9.4-8.8). A vote for Donaldson says one of three things: (1) Donaldson’s clutch hits in the pennant race were worth more than Trout’s; (2) Donaldson’s fielding advantage was actually bigger than the numbers suggest it was, perhaps because the league is flush with great defensive third basemen right now and they’re graded against each other (then again, Trout’s being graded against Kevin Kiermaier, Kevin Pillar, and Lorenzo Cain); or (3) the Blue Jays made the playoffs and the Angels didn’t.

Number one above could be valid, depending on how much you value performance in high-leverage situations versus consistent excellence throughout the year. Number two seems like a stretch, as Trout had a major lead in the more quantifiable aspect of performance (batting) and is a strong defender and baserunner. Number three doesn’t speak to me, as Donaldson had several teammates better than Trout’s best, which was probably Kole Calhoun.

Josh Donaldson is absolutely the right answer in this argument. I think Trout may be the slightest bit more right though.

1. Mike Trout
2. Josh Donaldson
3. Lorenzo Cain
4. Manny Machado
5. Kevin Kiermaier
6. Jason Kipnis
7. Nelson Cruz
8. Chris Davis
9. Dallas Keuchel
10. David Price

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What if the Playoffs Made Sense?: A Postseason Preview

If you’ve paid any attention to baseball over the past decade or so, you know that playoff results are governed by something other than logic. There is no formula that can identify a great playoff team. October baseball is driven by some combination of heart, guts, grit, and randomness- a little heavier on the last one.

But what if the playoffs made sense? What if Major League Baseball Players were of such varied skill levels that better players beat lesser players every time? Little League is a little like this, as is the NBA. Baseball might have been more like this a century ago, when only white players from the northeastern United States played the game, “sports medicine” wasn’t yet a thing, and most players had other jobs in the winter to make ends meet. A team with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri and Earle Combs was just better than a team without those guys, so of course they won. (editor’s note: sometimes they lost)

In an effort to understand which teams are best positioned for the playoffs- in other words, which teams would win if we could somehow set aside all the randomness in baseball- I created a model that assigned run values to each pitcher, hitter, and fielder based on how many opportunities he’s likely to have to impact a game in a best-of-one, -five, or -seven game series. Why not just add up each team’s WAR and call it a day? Because the Blue Jays don’t care how many games their bullpen blew early in the season when the personnel was entirely different. Because the Dodgers don’t care how their fifth starter fared this year. Because the Mets are a different team with Yoenis Cespedes and a healthy David Wright.

I started building the model by establishing a prototypical 25-man roster, consisting of four starting pitchers, a long reliever, a closer, lefty and righty setup men, four additional relievers, one regular starter at each position including DH (or primary PH in the NL), a backup catcher, a utility infielder, a fourth outfielder, and a baserunning specialist. I understand that some teams won’t construct their rosters this way, but I had to standardize the field to measure teams consistently.

The model makes a few core assumptions. First, teams will lean heavily on the pitchers at the top of their rotation and a few key relievers. In a one-game playoff, a team will only use its ace (assuming he’s available) and a few core relievers. In a best-of-five, at least three starters will appear, but the number one guy is likely to start twice. In a best-of-seven, most teams will use four starters, a long reliever is likely to make an appearance or two, and the team will probably dig deeper into its bullpen, pulling out a second lefty specialist or a starter who didn’t make the playoff rotation. I based my innings pitched projections on some facts- starters averaged 5.8 innings per start in the majors this year and teams used 3.09 relievers per game- and some guesses- in a four-game sweep, a team is equally likely to use its ace twice than to use its fourth starter.

Next, a team’s best hitters will come to bat more than its worst, but that impact is less severe than with pitchers. Again, plate appearance assumptions were based on some facts- teams averaged 37.8 plate appearances per game this season- and some guesses- players who typically hit in the bottom third of a team’s lineup are more likely to be pinch-hit for or given a day off in the playoffs. In all, I assigned 69% of all plate appearances to guys who usually bat in the top six spots, 25% to the bottom three regulars, and 6% to the subs.

With the framework of the model built, I assigned players from each of the ten playoff teams to the 25 roster spots on each team. While Paulo Orlando might get more plate appearances as Kansas City’s fourth outfielder than Travis Ishikawa gets as Pittsburgh’s, they slot into similar enough roles that the run values will be directionally correct.

For each player, I looked at his full-season stats (courtesy of fangraphs), even if he changed teams or leagues during the year. For pitchers, I pulled their Runs Above Replacement per inning pitched and multiplied it by the number of innings their roster spot is likely to pitch in each scenario (1, 5, or 7 games) to arrive at an estimate of how many runs they’re likely to save in a series. For hitters, I grabbed offensive runs above average per plate appearance and multiplied by their lineup spot’s projected plate appearances. Then I took defensive runs above replacement per plate appearance and multiplied by projected plate appearances for a separate fielding runs estimate (I used a different PA estimate for fielding to more closely resemble innings fielded; using innings fielded as the denominator is complicated by the negative adjustment given to designated hitters in Defensive Runs Above Average). The finishing touch was a look at baserunning runs above average per game played, multiplied by the assumption that each team’s baserunning specialist will get one opportunity per game to pinch run.

Adding these values for all 25 roster spots, I came up with a score for each team in a best-of-one, -five, or -seven game series. While the baseline is replacement level for pitchers and average for position players, all figures are measured in runs, so we’ll call the result Playoff Runs. Some of the results were surprising.

Rather than simply ranking the teams based on their total scores, let’s mock the playoffs by assuming the team with the better score for the appropriate length series wins every time. Then we can watch the playoffs and wonder why half of these predictions are dead wrong as always.

American League Wild Card Game
Astros (2.37) over Yankees (1.65)

Why the Astros Win This Simulation
By any measure, Dallas Keuchel had a better season than Masahiro Tanaka. By Playoff Runs, the Astros also score better than the Yankees offensively, where the Astros have home run power all over the lineup, and in the field, where the Yankees are by far the worst team in the playoffs.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
Keuchel pitched far better at home than on the road this season, and will pitch on three days’ rest for the first time in the big leagues. Tanaka, meanwhile, gets an extra day of rest and the two-headed monster of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances with extra rest behind him.

National League Wild Card Game
Cubs (2.91) over Pirates (1.83)

Why the Cubs Win This Simulation
It’s not just Jake Arrieta. Sure, Arrieta’s 6.5 projected innings are worth 1.76 runs alone, but Gerrit Cole counters with 1.49 of his own. Pittsburgh has a slight edge in the bullpen, but that’s about all they can hang their hats on. The Cubs’ defense, anchored by Addison Russell and Miguel Montero, grades out far better, and their bats pick up another third of a run, thanks to lots of projected plate appearances for Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
These baby Cubs (I guess that’s redundant) were called up piecemeal this season and took little time adjusting to the big leagues. As such, we’re dealing with small samples when we say that Schwarber and Jorge Soler are elite hitters and Russell has a great glove. One defensive miscue or rookie mistake on the basepaths could swing this game, so perhaps we shouldn’t put too much stock in a few months’ worth of solid numbers. The Pirates won 98 games and are hosting this game for the third straight year, so they may be better than their Playoff Runs. Then again, observing Jake Arrieta over the last few months gives us reason to believe there may not be many innings left in this Pirates season.

American League Division Series
Blue Jays (10.08) over Rangers (5.64)

Why the Blue Jays Win this Simulation
This may be the only postseason series that feels like it has an obvious favorite, and Playoff Runs back that up, ranking the Blue Jays first among AL playoff teams and the Rangers last. The Blue Jays field better and hit better, and both their rotation and bullpen are superior.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
There are actually some similarities between these two teams. Both were stuck around .500 at the trade deadline, but decided to make bold moves that paid off. Each team added its current ace (David Price and Cole Hamels) and enough bullpen pieces to turn a weakness into a strength. Hamels and the bullpen were particularly good down the stretch for Texas, and with Martin Perez and Derek Holland healthy, they’ve got the pitching depth to try to hang with the Blue Jays’ dangerous lineup.

Astros (8.32) over Royals (7.87)

Why the Astros Win this Simulation
First off, they barely do. This was the closest of all the matchups. Houston’s pitching grades out better, both in the rotation and, perhaps surprisingly, in the bullpen, where only the Yankees and Blue Jays are better. Relievers Luke Gregerson, Tony Sipp, and Josh Fields were immensely valuable this year, and having Lance McCullers (or Mike Fiers; the model guesses it’s McCullers) as a potential longman out of the pen is a bonus. Kansas City has far better gloves, but the model likes the Astros’ swing-for-the-fences approach slightly more than Kansas City’s put-everything-in-play gameplan, by a count of 2.09 Playoff Runs to 1.7.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
Kansas City’s bullpen is good too, and Ned Yost can lean heavily on Wade Davis, the game’s best reliever in 2015, if needed. This team seemed to add up to more than the sum of its parts all year, with the great outfield defense picking up the mediocre rotation and the hitters scraping just enough runs across with aggressive bats and legs. Furthermore, switching Keuchel to “SP3” and shifting Scott Kazmir and Collin McHugh up drops Houston’s Playoff Runs to 7.95, a virtual tie with the Royals. This one’s a toss-up.

National League Division Series
Mets (11.13) over Dodgers (9.62)

Why the Mets Win this Simulation
Here’s the biggest surprise of the simulation. The Dodgers have the best pitching, whether we’re looking at one game or a series of any length. The model sees Kershaw and Greinke pitching enough innings, particularly in a short series like this, to bully any opposing staff. But the next best pitching staff is in New York, with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and what’s left of Matt Harvey leading the way. Whether Bartolo Colon or Steven Matz gets the fourth start doesn’t make much difference, as a long man in relief could throw more innings in a short series than the fourth starter anyway, particularly if it’s a sweep. The Mets dive ahead here in both defense and offense. Yoenis Cespedes and Travis d’Arnaud get big points on both sides of the ball. The offensive numbers love Curtis Granderson, David Wright, and Lucas Duda at the top of the order and Juan Lagares and Wilmer Flores at key defensive positions. These Mets are good.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
These Mets are good, but are they great? Four of the five starting pitchers have thrown more big-league innings this year than in any other season, and the fifth is 42 years old. Are there enough quality innings on this staff to offset Kershaw and Greinke? Furthermore, some of the Mets’ biggest per-at-bat numbers are based on small sample sizes. David Wright returned from injury to post .041 offensive runs per PA (better than Alex Rodriguez an similar to Lorenzo Cain), while Michael Conforto’s .029 defensive runs are based on less than 400 innings in the field. The Dodgers’ second-half slump might make their 2.84 offensive Playoff Runs (third best in the playoffs) look a little aggressive, but would anyone have guessed that the Mets would score higher than anyone, including Toronto? Numbers don’t lie, but they can deceive.

Cubs (10.01) over Cardinals (6.53)

Why the Cubs Win this Simulation
The Cardinals won 100 games based on the consistent excellence of their starting pitching and not much else. In October, they’ll only occasionally have the better starting pitcher, and with Yadier Molina out (the model considers him the backup catcher), there’s not much to be afraid of in terms of offense or defense. In contrast, the Cubs started relatively slowly and never really contended for the division title, but as their rookies matured, the team started to gel, and Jake Arrieta established himself as perhaps the best righty in the game. With the regular season behind us and 25-man rosters set, there’s not much to suggest that the Cards are better. In fact, the Cubs have big edges in pitching, fielding, and hitting over the Cardinals.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
Cardinals devil magic? The starting pitchers will keep St. Louis in every game, and in recent Octobers, it seems like any game in which the Cards keep it close end up going their way. Past playoff performance doesn’t mean much, though, and these Cubs are just better. Even if we change Arrieta to the third starter, which is where he’d likely slot in after pitching the Wild Card game, the Cubs still have the advantage in every category.

American League Championship Series
Blue Jays (14.06) over Astros (8.66)

Why the Blue Jays Win this Simulation
Batting. But also starting pitching. This is where we finally get into best-of-seven series, where depth matters a little more, but the Blue Jays are still winning based on the heart of the order, where Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion alone hold a 2.2-run advantage over the Astros’ 2 through 4 hitters- and the rotation, where David Price, Marcus Stroman, RA Dickey, and Marco Estrada were far more effective this year than the Astros’ front four.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
The Blue Jays’ opponent here might be the Royals or Yankees, rather than the Astros. Of course, runs above average prefer the Blue Jays to any of them by a good distance, but no opponent is a pushover in October, and any of these teams could be the one to turn the Blue Jays back into the pumpkin that was struggling to stay relevant at the trade deadline.

National League Championship Series
Mets (15.37) over Cubs (13.91)

Why the Mets Win this Simulation
Regardless of the length of the series, the model likes the Mets more than any NL team. While the Cubs get more Playoff Runs for pitching and fielding, the Mets’ offense is a significant advantage. While Schwarber, Rizzo, and Bryant outscore their lineup counterparts in the middle, the Mets hit better at the top and bottom of the lineup.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
At this point in the playoffs, we don’t really know which teams will be able to line up their rotations optimally. The Mets have one of the deeper rotations, so they’re more flexible in terms of using someone other than their ace in game one. On the offensive side, though, the Mets were no-hit by Max Scherzer on the second-to-last day of the regular season, then they get dates with Kershaw and Greinke and possible multiple meetings with Arrieta and Lester. Their offense grades out well in Playoff Runs, but they feasted on Phillies, Braves, and Marlins pitching in compiling those numbers. This slate could prove to be their undoing.

World Series
Mets (15.37) over Blue Jays (14.06)
Why the Mets Win this Simulation
These two teams are almost identical in pitching Playoff Runs, and Mets field better than the Blue Jays, but the difference here comes on the offensive side, where New York’s bats are actually better too. Toronto has the edge over anyone in the heart of the order, but extend that “heart” to Granderson/Wright/Cespedes/Murphy/Duda/d’Arnaud/Conforto, with Cuddyer DHing in Toronto, and the Mets look really good. If the three young guns are still throwing gas in late October, this could be the team that finally neutralizes the murderers’ row in Canada.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
Fangraphs’ WAR is adjusted for league quality, but the run components are not. The National League was top-heavy this year, with seven good teams and eight really bad ones, while the AL was solid from top to bottom. This may be part of the reason why National League teams rank first, third, fourth, seventh, and eighth in total Playoff Runs. The Blue Jays played better teams all year and didn’t have the same opportunities to put up garish run/PA numbers, but they’re clearly stacked offensively and defensively. It’s hard to imagine the Mets being considered favorites if this World Series actually came to fruition.

So there you have. Mets over Blue Jays. I’m not sure that “makes sense”, but it’s at least based in quantitative logic. If (recent) past performance were a strong indicator of playoff success, the Mets would be the most formidable team this October, though their first playoff opponent wouldn’t be far behind. You’ll note that this model favors the newcomers to the playoff party over the establishment. While I believe playoff experience is overrated, we’ve seen the Cardinals and Yankees win enough in October to believe that the Mets and Blue Jays have uphill climbs despite their loaded rosters.

Let’s close with the ten playoff teams ranked by their aggregate Playoff Runs over a best-of-seven series:

1. Mets (4th in pitching, 3rd in fielding, 1st in hitting)
2. Blue Jays (3rd in pitching, 5th in fielding, 2nd in hitting)
3. Cubs (2nd in pitching, 2nd in fielding, 4th in hitting)
4. Dodgers (1st in pitching, 8th in fielding, 3rd in hitting)
5. Astros (5th in pitching, 7th in fielding, 5th in hitting)
6. Royals (9th in pitching, 1st in fielding, 6th in hitting)
7. Cardinals (8th in pitching, 4th in fielding, 9th in hitting)
8. Pirates (6th in pitching, 9th in fielding, 8th in hitting)
9. Yankees (7th in pitching, 10th in fielding, 7th in hitting)
10. Rangers (10th in pitching, 6th in fielding, 10th in hitting)

For player-by-player stats, check out the companion piece here.

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NL Cy Young Preview

September’s here. The usual suspects (and the Mets) are dominating the National League. Continuing my series of major award previews, here are the five players most likely to win the NL Cy Young Award, in ascending order of likelihood:

5. Madison Bumgarner, Giants
No, Bumgarner probably isn’t one of the five best pitchers in the National League. Despite last October’s theatrics and the subsequent canonization, he probably never has been. He’s 13th in the league in ERA (2.97) and tied for fifth in FIP (2.76) despite pitching in the most extreme pitcher’s park in the league. His 9.84 K/9 are great, but not Kershaw (11.48) great. Bumgarner finds himself on this list for another reason. He’s 16-6, and while pitcher wins and losses don’t carry as much weight as they used to (for good reason), it’s not just defense and run support that are carrying him to all those wins. MadBum is batting .262/.286/.525 with five home runs. That’s not just far better than any other pitcher, it’s 27 percent better htan league average for any player. Fangraphs tells us he’s been worth 1.1 wins above replacement with his bat and glove. Add that to his 4.4 on the mound and he jumps to third in the NL in total fWAR. That’s not quite MVP material, but if the Cy Young Award is for the best player in baseball whose primary position is pitcher, Bumgarner’s not far off.

4. Jacob deGrom, Mets
Two years ago, the Mets brought up a rookie who pitched one of the great seasons in baseball history, nearly joining a very elite club. When Matt Harvey missed a full season to Tommy John surgery, the Mets called up deGrom, a less-heralded but nearly-as-effective righty who won the Rookie of the Year award. This year it was Noah Syndergaard’s turn to introduce himself to the world, but as good as Thor has been, Harvey’s been better and deGrom has been the best of the three. His 2.32 ERA ranks fourth in the NL and his 2.89 FIP is ninth. He’s a major part of the reason the Mets have surprised everyone by running away with the NL East. A lot would have to break his way for deGrom to win a Cy Young Award, but it’s not impossible.

3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
If I were ranking the best pitchers in the NL this year, Kershaw would come out on top. 11.48 K/9. 1.61 BB/9. 0.63 HR/9. 2.24 ERA. 2.10 FIP. There’s nobody better in the game right now and this lines up with the best years of the lefty’s career. There’s a better story going though- maybe two- and voters need to be blown away to keep giving the Cy Young Award to the same guy. Kershaw was the best pitcher in the league when RA Dickey won his award in 2012 and he’ll likely have been the best pitcher in the league when one of the next two guys wins it this year. So it goes.

2. Jake Arrieta, Cubs
Until this weekend, this was a one-horse race, and it may still be, but with his Sunday no-hitter against the Dodgers, Arrieta reminded us that ballots aren’t due just yet. His 2.49 FIP can’t quite match Kershaw’s, and it’s driven in large part by a freakishly low 0.44 homers per nine innings. His 2.11 ERA isn’t quite the next guy’s, but it would be the fourth lowest in either league over the last ten seasons, topped only by the guys before and after him on this list. Both are second-place figures, though, and along with the narrative of the Cubs finally getting back to the playoffs and a chance to break a 107-year World Series drought, it’s not out of the question that Arrieta could pull into the lead this month.

1. Zack Greinke
Zack Greinke has a 1.61 ERA. Pedro Martinez never did that. Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver, Warren Spahn, and Randy Johnson never did that. Here’s full list of qualified ERAs that low since 1920:

Bob Gibson, 1968, 1.12
Dwight Gooden, 1985, 1.53
Greg Maddux, 1994, 1.56
Luis Tiant, 1968, 1.60

Two of those guys pitched from 10-foot high mounds in the Year of the Pitcher. One of those guys started just 25 games in a strike-shortened year. Zack Greinke’s 2015 is next on this list.

His 8.23 strikeouts per nine are merely very good. His 1.56 walks per nine are legendary. For good measure, he’s given up a homer per 18 innings, held batters to a .236 batting average on balls in play, and stranded 86% of runners who reached base against him. Don’t expect Greinke to keep his ERA this low over five or six more starts. It’s very likely, though, that he’ll keep it under 2, and if he does, he’ll be hard to deny for his second Cy Young Award, even if Kershaw or Arrieta is just a few hundredths of a run behind. Some numbers are magical. So are some seasons. Greinke’s having one of those right now.

Honorable Mention: Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, all of the Cardinals’ starters

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